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battle scene
As the attack on the Federal left below the town foundered, Burnside ordered his right wing to assault the heavily defended heights behind Fredericksburg. in this sketch by Waud, waves of infantry push across the broken plain on December 13 in it the face of fierce Confederate musket and artillery fire. The Marye mansion is at right.
Courtesy, Library of Congress.


Even with most of his army safely across the river, Burnside still had no definite plan of attack. Not until early the next morning did he issue his orders, and then they were vague and confused, couched in generalities. Corps and division commanders had no clear conception of what was expected of them. Franklin with one division was ordered "to seize, if possible" the heights at Hamilton's Crossing. Sumner was ordered to push a division through the city "with a view to seizing the heights in the rear," whatever that was supposed to mean. Incredible as it seems, with an army of 130,000 men under his command Burnside's so-called battle orders basically did nothing but commit two divisions to action, one to "seize if possible," the other "with a view to seizing."

Reynolds picked Gen. George Meade's division of Pennsylvanians to make the attack near Hamilton's Crossing, supported by Gen. John Gibbon's division on his right, with Gen. Abner Doubleday's division in reserve on the left. Meade formed his men along the Richmond Stage Road hidden by a heavy fog. Shortly after 9 a.m. the fog lifted. The Union soldiers marched bravely out across the open plain to attack Gen. A. P. Hill's division of Jackson's corps, concealed in the woods at the base of the heights and behind the shelter of the railroad embankment.

At Lee's command post, on top of a hill that has borne his name ever since, Confederate officers were treated to an awe-inspiring spectacle. They had a panoramic view of thousands of blue-clad soldiers in battle formation, marching with parade-ground precision out across the open fields to the attack. Bugles blared, and drums rolled. Horse-drawn artillery wheeled into line in skilled maneuvers. Steel bayonets flashed in the pale winter sun. The rich colors of the regimental flags unfurled in the breeze. Officers, on horseback shouting orders, charged up and down the line. It was a breathtaking sight—a picture-book study of war that prompted Lee to remark: "It is well that war is so terrible— we should grow too fond of it."

Then the Confederate artillery opened, ripping holes in the blue lines. The charging Federals were obscured in smoke as regiment after regiment behind the railroad embankment erupted into action. Still they came on, up to the embankment, over it, clubbing and stabbing with musket and bayonet.

Without knowing it, Meade had hit a weak spot between Archer's and Lane's brigades of Hill's division and pierced the Confederate line. But in the process he lost contact with Gibbon on his right and, unsupported on his left, was forced to retreat when Jackson quickly threw in his reserves. The gallant charge was wasted, since the Federals were driven back to the vicinity of the Richmond Stage Road.


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